Friday's running of the Baja 1000 marked, among many things, the end of season for Robby Gordon and Team Gordon. The race was won by Trophy Truck driver Larry Ragland whose smooth, steady and bullet-proof approach to the race make him one of the perennial front runners in Baja. Robby finished fifth after running much of the opening stages third, victim to a broken transmission at the five-hour point in a desolate area they call Valley de Trinidad.
Lets start with transmissions. They seem to be the vice of Robby in the desert the last few years. In 1998, Robby ran a radical, pneumatic, paddle-shifter setup, the same concept used in Formula One racing. No clutch needed, just pull the paddles and keep the gas to the floor. Well, that didn't work out too well. Actually, the transmission and paddle mechanism worked fine, it was the pneumatic assist that broke down. And like many things, without air, you're out to lunch.
That system was scrapped in 1999 for the more conventional automatic transmission. Get grandma to the store, but don't confuse her along the way. That was the theory. Not that Rob's a grandma in the desert, he's quite the opposite. It was just time to simplify. Robby called on a Turbo 400. It's a GM transmission that's as reliable as they get. We tested it numerous times in the desert without fail, and if I was told correctly, it's the same transmission Ragland uses year in and year out. How can you lose, it's money in the bank? Anyway, I'll get back to this...
Robby started seventh out of ten Trophy Trucks. The start is staggered, each truck leaving 30 seconds ahead of the next. It was 9am, and only the beginning of 15 hours of racing.
Once Robby took off, everyone jumped in their chase vehicles to meet him at the next pit, about an hour and a half south on highway 3 in Trinidad. Along the way there are two spots where the course crosses the highway, good visuals with crowds of people stacked up watching. The first radio report we got from the chase helicopter was that Robby and the Herbst Racing entry had already gotten into a little paint swapping. Herbst started behind us, but apparently short cutted the course by going through somebody's property via an open gate. If you can imagine making a square into a triangle, that's what they did. Robby took the marked route and by the time Herbst had gone out the backdoor of the property he was just in front of Robby.
When Herbst shot out in front, Robby gave him a little NASCAR bump and grind as the two raced into the first tight section. Nobody's sure if the move by Herbst was legal, probably not, but that's the nature of this race. You take any advantage you can get. Even Robby commended the move after the race.
"It was a great call I guess", said Rob. "I wish I had seen that opening, I'd have done the same thing. But that doesn't mean I'm going to roll over and let him go. I was mad as hell when he pulled in front of me!"
The tight twisty stuff presented perhaps the race's biggest turning point. Mark Post, driving a truck he purchased from Robby last year, had difficulty and ended up stuck in the middle of the road. Report by Robby was that he lost a front tire. He was blocking the entire path, creating a bottleneck for all the trophy trucks except Ragland.
"It was a complete mess. Post was stuck with a blown tire and nobody could get by," claimed Robby. "There was a cliff on one side that dropped off a good 15-20 feet and the other side was huge boulders. Believe me, if there was a way to get by short of rolling Post off the cliff, we would have done it. But there wasn't. Roeseler and I got out of our trucks to deal with the situation the whole time knowing Ragland was running free. Post's co-driver finally got in and gassed the truck out of the way over a rock. Roeseler took off and I jumped in my truck. There was no sense running in his dust, so I blocked the road, put my belts on safely and continued."
For Ragland, he avoided the whole mess by passing Post just as he had the problem. Robby tried to push Herbst out of the way to get through, but it wasn't happening. The mess was too big for brute force.
The gap to Ragland held for the next four hours.
Our first major pit stop was in Trinidad, which is at the base of a long hill climb through an area called Mike's Sky Ranch. Robby reported no problems during the stop and took on four tires and fuel. It was a NASCAR-type pit with impact guns buzzing lug nuts off 120 pound wheels. The entire stop took about two minutes.
It would seem in a 15 hour race that seconds in a pit stop wouldn't matter as much as they do in a CART race, but that's not the case. We treated each stop as the difference between first and last, especially with the fact that Ragland was so far ahead.
That 18 minute gap to Ragland was two-sided though. It was small enough to be erased by a few remote tire changes or a problem with his truck, but it was huge in the respect that Ragland seldom breaks. At the time, we were also going into the hills where Robby was having trouble with bottom-end torque The big block Chevys in Ragland and Roeseler's trucks had the ability to stretch out their leads just because they could launch off the sharp corners and up the steep rises. Roeseler's truck also had four-wheel drive, presenting another disadvantage for us in this terrain.
"Roeseler's good. He's one of the mean dogs of Baja and he's been tearing up the off-road series lately," Robby commented. "The four-wheel drive truck is great for this type of race with all the twisty stuff. Had Ragland not jumped out front so far, Roeseler would have been tough to beat."
By the time Robby had cleared Mike's Sky Ranch to begin the long, straight road back into the valley, Roeseler had gained two minutes. Ragland was still 18 minutes ahead of us, so the real factor in the hills was the four-wheel drive. But on the open roads, Robby was fast. In the helicopter, we couldn't keep up with him as he streaked through the valley at speeds in excess of 120 mph, creating dust trails reaching back hundreds of yards.
I have to admit, at this point it was getting exciting. We were through the hills with no damage and Robby hadn't lost much time. The game plan as I mentioned the other day was to stay in the hunt the first loop and then go racing the second. The truck appeared solid and in the flats we were gaining on Roeseler.
The open road made a 90 degree turn to the left at the bottom of the valley, giving us in the chopper a chance to shortcut and see the next checkpoint. We also saw a civilian car lolly gagging along in the middle of the road Rob had just turned on to. He was going to run over it if it didn't move aside. We sounded a siren in the chopper for the car to move, then circled around the checkpoint. As we came around, Robby was gone.
"Where'd he go?" said Mike Held.
There was no dust and no green machine. The civilian car was pulled over waiting for Robby to pass, but he never did. Finally we found him, parked on the side of the road about 100 yards behind the civilian car. Kenny Parry radioed to the pit crew in Trinidad to move to the checkpoint which was only a few minutes away from our pit. Robby and Greg Till were both out of the truck with their helmets off trying to sort out the problem. The helicopter pilot moved us as close down to the truck as he could and Robby signaled to Kenny that it was the transmission which had failed. We immediately radioed again to the pit crew to haul ass and bring a tranny with them.
The transmission swap took a solid hour and a half, essentially destroying any chance we had of catching Ragland or whoever might be so fortunate to run problem-free. Buggies drove by, motorcycles drove by, Ivan Stewart and Herbst drove by. It was painful. The final verdict on the tranny problem is still yet to be determined, but the initial reports mentioned the input shaft. So much for the Turbo 400. At that point it was more like a Turbo 275. What we needed was a Turbo 1000.
But from this point on, Robby ran without problem. He had another stop on the coast for fuel and tires, then the long run back from the coast to Ojos Negros where he'd start over and begin the second loop. By the time Robby showed up at Ojos it was dark and he was almost two hours behind Ragland.
The good news was that the truck had held up after the repair and we didn't anticipate any more problems.
Robby had gotten in a groove by the time he reached us and left saying he was going to catch everyone. It was unrealistic to say the least, but it was good to see he was having fun. And who knows?
Anyway, Rob drove off to tackle the first 80 miles again, which according to him are the toughest part of the entire loop.
"It's ugly in the opening section," said Rob. "Slow, pounding and enough to make you sick - I was worried about Greg (navigator) for awhile there! I'm kidding, Greg's been through it all and can handle anything. But it definitely got worse the second time by in the tight stuff. All the ruts got bigger and the hits seemed to hit harder."
After Ojos, everything stayed status quo. Robby gained time on some of the trucks in between he and Ragland, but still finished fifth in the Trophy Truck class and eighth overall, just behind his Dad in a Toyota Buggy. Essentially, nobody was going to catch Ragland after spotting him a 15 minute lead, and nobody did. He dominated. Rob was still happy with the result, but then again he had 12 hours after dropping a transmission to feel good about finishing fifth...
"My hats off to Ragland, that guy kicks some serious you-know-what down here. He stole our game plan, and I have to say, he got a big break back when (Mark) Post had a problem. The name of the game here is to survive. You have to be keep it all together, be consistent and not make mistakes. Ragland's good at that, he's fast and he seems to have the fewest problems every year. I recognized that in our preparation and purposely decided to use the same transmission he does.
The problem after a guy like Ragland gets that big a lead is it forces everyone else to push harder. Rags it out there running his steady pace while we're all running harder than we should. When you run that way you expose yourself to problems, blow tires, etc. Roeseler tried like mad to catch him, but he kept losing tires as did Ivan. That was one thing we never had to deal with fortunately, for some reason tires were good to us.
As I look back, it's a bummer to have that tranny let go. Before we broke, we were looking pretty good even though Rags was 15 minutes or so ahead. Anything can and will happen in Baja, so I was hoping he'd have some tires to change in deep sandy washes. Or maybe a belt snap - anything so we could make up the gap and go racing the rest of the way, but it didn't work out. I guess my wishing was transferred to our truck instead. But really, outside of the transmission, the truck was great. Our motor never missed a beat and all the modifications we made from last year held up.
It was a lot of fun and a good way to end the year. You get all your aggressions out in this form of racing and you always leave eager to go back.
So this is it. 1999 is done and gone for Robby Gordon and Team Gordon. 22 races, four continents, a ton of frequent flyer miles and hopefully a window to use the miles for a vacation. We'll begin prepping for next year next week, this week we need to wrap up '99 and have a few moments to unwind.
We shot a ton of pictures of the race, and as soon as I can get the video digitized we'll have some helicopter footage up as well.